What Goes Around, Comes Around
Tufts graduate Ken Irwin says that Rounder Records, the label he co-founded with his first-year Tufts roommate, succeeds by sticking to its roots.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.31.06] When Ken Irwin started a record label in 1970 with his first-year roommate Bill Nowlin (A'66), it was mainly "to put out the music we loved that no one else was issuing," he recently told Billboard magazine. Thirty-six years later, that remains not only the central tenet behind Rounder Records, but also the key reason for its success.
"I think a lot of people are coming back and trying to look for things that are real," Irwin (A'66) told the music industry publication. "And that's something we've been doing all along."
He cites the continued success of Rounder mainstays like bluegrass artist Alison Krauss and the surprise success of chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux, whose 2004 album Careless Love achieved critical acclaim and solid sales.
"Maybe the right record at the right time. Maybe being a big fish in a smaller pond," Irwin speculated to Billboard about the success of Peyroux, whose follow-up is slated for release this September. "I think it's been a combination of all those."
Peyroux's success is just one indicator of Rounder's continued growth. The label's portfolio has diversified in recent years, expanding to include the adult alternative format with its ZoŽ Records imprint while still maintaining its extensive roster of blues, jazz, folk and world music artists. A few years ago, Rounder even expanded into book publishing.
The label will soon move from its longtime Cambridge office—not far from the Medford/Somerville campus of Tufts—to a new facility in Burlington, Mass. Still, Rounder has managed to maintain the intimacy of a small label while taking advantage of the machinery of major-label distribution to get exposure for its offerings.
"What matters to me is that we are profitable and able to keep doing what we are doing and doing it well, rather than actual revenue," Irwin told Billboard.
Irwin also attributes part of Rounder’s success to filling its staff with both home-grown music lovers and industry veterans.
"It's an interesting combination here where we have people who have grown up within the company—that this was the first job that they had and came here for the music—and then have other people who have worked at major labels and have much more of a business background coming in," he told Billboard. "We feel that we have a great combination of the passion and the business."
Just because Irwin has been at the helm of Rounder for nearly four decades doesn't mean he's taken a back seat to the nitty-gritty work of running a record label. According to Billboard, Irwin is still active in album production, compilation assembly, and talent scouting. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't see myself retiring," he told the publication. "I have a work ethic, and what I do for relaxation is often what other people do for work."